If you love getting creative in the kitchen or have explored mushroom foraging, it’s likely you’ve heard about morel mushrooms before. The elusive and delectable mushrooms have a cult following for their distinctive flavor and unique texture. And finding them is no easy feat; they can be notoriously challenging to locate and tricky to grow at home. Nevertheless, these edible mushrooms prove to be a dream for mushroom enthusiasts.
In this guide, you’ll learn what makes morels a sought-after mushroom. We’ll talk about what they look like, their health benefits, how to enjoy them, and so much more. Let’s dive in!
Morel mushrooms are edible wild mushrooms, so unlike cremini mushrooms or oyster mushrooms, you’ll probably miss seeing these in your local supermarket. Instead, you may need to take a trip to a farmer’s market or two to find these rare and elusive fungi.
While their scientific name morchella encompasses several different species, you’re much more likely to encounter them by their common names: the black morel, the conic morel, or Peck’s morel (1).
Morel mushrooms are saprotrophic organisms, which means they obtain nutrients through decomposing material. Saprotrophic originates from the Greek words saprós and trophē, meaning rotten or putrid and nourishment, respectively.
Here’s how the process works: Saprotrophic organisms release enzymes that digest and feed on nonliving organic material, which breaks this material down into simple molecules that are easier for the mushroom to digest (2).
Psst: Morel mushrooms often grow in areas you wouldn’t expect (more on this soon) and may be a keystone species. This means they might be one of the first harbingers of a ravaged environment bouncing back after devastation (1).
Before we jump into the different types of morel mushrooms you may see out in the wild, it’s important to note that the taxonomy of these mushrooms is confusing—and not just by our standards.
Mycologist Paul Stamets shares that he’s grown radically different-looking morels and has discovered that their environment plays a tremendous role in appearance. While he wonders about the division of morel species, he’s seen that there are natural groupings of morel mushrooms, so that’s what we’ll talk about (and we promise to keep it simple).
Stamets expects emerging research to shed light on the number of species of morel mushrooms (1).
Psst: Morchellaceae is the family of fungi that morel mushrooms belong to. Zooming out, they belong to the phylum Ascomycota and the Pezizales order. We know remembering biological classification can take time and effort. In case you missed it in science class, see if you can remember this mnemonic: “Kings play chess on fine grain sand.” This handy little saying can help you remember order classification, beginning with the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.
True morel mushrooms are pitted or ribbed, often reminiscent of a honeycomb. Morel mushroom fruit bodies typically have a conical-shaped cap between two and six centimeters wide and two and eight centimeters high (1).
Expect these mushrooms to have hollow centers and caps that completely connect to their stem. They come in various colors, too, from gray to golden shades of yellow to reddish brown (3).
Psst: Did you know there are false morels (gyromitra genus)? Yep, it’s true (and another reason why proper mushroom identification is essential). False morels are wrinkled and look similar to a brain, and they contain a toxin damaging your liver. If you’ve mistakenly harvested the wrong mushrooms, expect to feel sick within several hours or up to two days after ingesting them. Symptoms can include nausea, abdominal pain, and dizziness; they can also develop into jaundice and hepatitis within 48 hours. In the most severe cases, gyromitrin toxin will affect bleeding and cause issues with clotting (4).
Often our understanding of how mushrooms were used by various cultures throughout history comes from oral histories, writings, cultural relics, or documentation through a materia medica connected to ancient traditional medicine lineages. We’re grateful to have that, but it doesn’t always mean that we get specific information on a mushroom.
So, while we may not have concrete evidence outlining how morel mushrooms were used, we do know a few things. According to the Oregon Mycological Society, a study published in 2021 uncovered new findings:
Morels probably found a place in the local herbalism or early pharmacological practices in these regions, the details of which are lost to the ages.
Like other mushroom varieties, this edible fungi is nutrient-dense and packed with essential vitamins and minerals. Morel mushrooms are loaded with vitamin D, protein, and are low in fat (making them fantastic for heart health). And they’re a fantastic source of iron and minerals like manganese and phosphorus, not to mention fiber which helps keep your digestive system happy.
Because they’re low in calories and brimming with nutrition, morel mushrooms would be a natural fit if you follow a low carbohydrate diet or have other special dietary needs too (6).
If there’s one thing to note about morel mushrooms, it’s that they can be notoriously tricky to find. Their natural camouflage allows them to blend seamlessly into their environment. Unlike mushrooms that grow year-round, morel mushrooms have a short growing season. Even more, they may grow abundantly in some areas and be non-existent in others. Still, it’s not impossible to find morels; you just need to know where to look.
Morel mushrooms grow in various unique habitats from April to about June in temperate regions of the world. Potential homes to morel mushrooms include deserted orchards (apple trees are a favorite); sandy gravel soil near rivers and streams; the forest floor of wooded areas; and, perhaps surprisingly, land after it has been ravaged by wildfires.
Mycologist Paul Stamets notes the fire-treated habitat tends to be the most reliable place to hunt for wild morel mushrooms. While it’s true that forest fires tend to leave destruction in their wake, they also alter the soil’s makeup in a way favorable to growing morels. Carbon and nitrogen levels drop while the soil’s calcium, potassium, and mineral salt content increases.
In North America, the West Coast of the United States and Canada are excellent places to look for morels as they tend to favor fresh beauty bark in addition to some of the trees listed above. Morels also enjoy Colorado’s Front Range outside Denver, as well as Michigan, too (1).
Psst: Natural disasters can alter a habitat so much that it becomes the perfect place for morel mushrooms to take up residence. This was true after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 and after the Yellowstone fires in 1988. So many were available for gathering that people could fill the entire bed of their pickup trucks with morel mushrooms (1)!
After learning more about morel mushrooms, you can understand why mushroom hunters and foragers are eager to explore and harvest their own. But there’s much more to harvesting morels (or any other mushroom) than you may think.
Whether you’re thinking about morel mushroom hunting for the first time or consider yourself an experienced forager, it’s essential to understand the difference between foraging and ethically wildcrafting your mushrooms.
It may seem subtle, but the difference in approaches can be miles apart. Foraging typically refers to gathering food resources out in the wild. On the other hand, ethical wildcrafting involves a far more mindful and intentional approach to harvesting resources, whether that’s mushrooms, herbs, or other plants.
Wildcrafting sets out to mindfully harvest while preserving the ecology of the local environment. Time is spent learning to identify other native species in an area, not only for identification purposes but to also be aware of any endangered or threatened species that are part of the ecosystem.
Another aspect is learning how to harvest morel mushrooms appropriately; what we see above ground is only half of the story, and there’s much more happening beneath the surface than we think.
Underneath the fruiting bodies is a sophisticated and highly intelligent network of delicate filaments known as mycelium. Mycologists have been studying this “wood wide web” and have discovered some fascinating things.
The mycelia plays a role in mycorrhizal relationships; in simplest terms, this is the relationship a mushroom has with the roots of other plants through this mycelial network. This communication network can transmit information such as changing weather conditions, the arrival of predators, and other environmental changes.
Improper gathering of morel mushrooms could damage the substrate and this network of communication or create a ripple effect in the local environment with overharvesting.
One way to avoid this is to only gather what you need. Remember, we aren’t the only ones who enjoy feasting on morels. Animals, such as deer, birds, insects, and other critters, look forward to dining on these mushrooms as much as we do.
When you’re finished gathering your morels, consider making a spore print. A spore print is what it sounds like, and the spores gathered can be used to cultivate your own morels at home.
While many types of mushrooms are a delight to feast on, few are as enjoyable as a fresh morel. And while these edible mushrooms may be a chef’s dream in the kitchen, you don’t need to be a professional or use fancy cooking techniques to enjoy this wild mushroom. Here are some of our favorite ways to enjoy morel mushrooms:
When it’s just about showcasing the flavor of the food, you can’t go wrong with a simple sauté. This recipe from Serious Eats for sautéed morel mushrooms keeps it super simple with shallots, garlic, butter, and fresh herbs. It’s the perfect weeknight recipe, too, with a total cook time of just 10 minutes.
Want another delicious way to enjoy a harvest of fresh morel mushrooms? Look no further than Hunt Gather Cook’s morel mushroom risotto and have a mouthwatering dinner ready and on the table in under an hour. Aromatics such as shallots and garlic pair with parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, and rich stock to form a filling and flavorful risotto. If you don’t have fresh mushrooms on hand, you can use dried morels instead.
While many mushrooms lend themselves well to a quick pan fry and sauté, we thought we’d offer another option where morel mushrooms shine—cream sauces! Have a date night in and check out Midwest Living’s morel mushroom cream sauce with pasta. This one is a little longer on the prep time, so it’s a perfect recipe for employing a partner in the kitchen. A simple cream sauce with fresh parsley and thyme adds flavor while letting the morels shine.
As always, you can substitute with other varieties of mushrooms if you can’t find morels in your area. Maitake mushrooms, cremini mushrooms, chanterelles, and golden oyster mushrooms would all be delicious in any of these dishes.
Psst: Keep your morel mushrooms fresh and ready for use by storing them in a paper bag in the fridge. And don’t wash your mushrooms! Washing mushrooms can change their texture and cause them to lose their flavor. Instead, using a damp cloth or paper towel to brush off any dirt and debris will do the trick.
Few mushrooms are treasured in the way morel mushrooms are. These highly valued mushrooms are not only a tasty addition to a meal but also fascinating marvels of nature with their ability to grow in a variety of conditions and also act as indicators of healthy change in damaged environments.
Be sure to keep up with all things mushroom on shroomer, where you’ll learn more about identification and all the latest breakthroughs and discoveries on functional and psychedelic mushrooms!